Students form first Yale team ever to compete in prestigious Solar Decathlon

Two sophomore architecture students are leading the first Yale team ever selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s biennial Solar Decathlon.
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Sophomore architecture students Juan Pablo Ponce de Leon and Katherine McMillan will lead the team building an energy-efficient home as part of the Solar Decathlon. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Two sophomore architecture students are leading the first Yale team ever selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s biennial Solar Decathlon. Juan Pablo Ponce de Leon of Jonathan Edwards College and Katherine McMillan of Davenport College will be joined by six fellow undergraduates from a range of majors, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, environmental engineering, and geology and geophysics. The team will spend the next two years building a solar-powered house that is affordable and energy-efficient.  

The 2015 competition will take place in Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, and will include 20 university-led teams involving 800 students. The winning project will be the one that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

“Yale’s participation was entirely student initiated and driven, which is unprecedented for this type of competition,” said Michelle Addington, the Hines Professor of Sustainable Architecture at the Yale School of Architecture, who is advising the students.

Ponce de Leon and McMillan, who took Addington’s “Environment, Energy, Building” class, first approached their professor about submitting a proposal for the Solar Decathlon last fall. After their initial conversation, the students put together a team of fellow undergraduates to work on the project.

“We had about a month and a half to put the application together,” said Ponce de Leon. “We quickly started getting others involved. Most of the people who ended up joining had heard about the competition and were excited to participate.”

In addition to forming a team, the students secured a site at Yale to build their house, which will be shipped to Irvine in summer 2015. They will use the same warehouse facility at West Campus that students in the School of Architecture use to fabricate components of the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project.

A number of the teams participating in the 2015 competition are made up of multiple university partners, including some from international universities in Germany, Panama, and Italy.

“This is an amazing achievement for our undergraduate students who will be in competition with teams from highly focused powerhouse programs,” said School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern, “I salute the students’ entrepreneurialism, determination and idealism.”

Addington added that the Yale team will be able to mobilize people in a collaborative way unlike anywhere else. “Yale undergraduates are remarkable,” she said. “They are smart, driven, resourceful, gracious, and above all, collegial. It’s an ideal combination.”

According to U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, who announced the 20 teams on Feb. 13, “The Solar Decathlon provides the next generation of America’s architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs with the real world experience and training they need to strengthen innovation and support new, clean sources of energy.”

Like the Olympic decathlon, the Solar Decathlon consists of 10 contests; each contest is worth a maximum of 100 points, for a total of 1,000 points in competition. The categories are: architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance.

In order to be chosen for the decathlon, teams from colleges and universities submit proposals and plans for consideration by a panel of engineers, scientists, and building experts. Teams are required to meet specific criteria to demonstrate their ability to design and build an innovative, entirely solar-powered house; raise additional funds; support the project through integrated curricula; and assemble a team to carry the project through to completion.

Both Ponce de Leon and McMillan said that while winning would be fantastic, they are more interested in working out important questions about design.

“It’s less about designing a solar power house and more about what it means to have energy-efficient housing,” said McMillan. “We’ll adapt our strategy to meet that goal in designing.”

“We’re really focused on the bigger picture,” added Ponce de Leon. “I’m very excited about the process. We’ll all gain so much from this experience.”

The construction costs of the competing teams’ houses vary based on the technologies employed and the market for which the homes are designed. For the 2015 project, the Yale team has received financial support from the Hines Fund at the Yale School of Architecture; the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design; the Yale Climate and Energy Institute; the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale; IBM; and Turner Construction, New Haven. In-kind support has been provided by West Campus and Reclamation Lumber, New Haven; the team will also apply for grants to help cover their costs.

The first Solar Decathlon took place in 2002 in Washington, D.C. The program was designed to educate students and the public about the financial and environmental benefits presented by clean-energy products and design solutions. Since 2002, the decathlon has invited 112 collegiate teams (nearly 17,000 students) to participate. In 2011, it created the Affordability contest to reward full points for teams that built houses with costs estimated at or less than $250,000. The Solar Decathlon has since expanded to include competitions in Europe and China.

After the competition, some of the houses will be sold to recover costs or raise money for future teams. Most of the houses, however, are used for research and are on display for public tours. The 2015 event will be free and open to the public. Visitors are invited to tour the houses in order to gather ideas to use in their own homes. Photos of past teams and houses are available on the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon website.

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